Foreign Correpondents Reporting From Afar

The Days Before Modern Telecommunications










In many ways, the Spanish-American War came as the rise of the United States as a world power. Perhaps no other foreign involvement so gripped American newspaper readers, whipped into a frenzy as they were by the splashy coverage of Hearst's New York Journal and Pulitzer's New York World.

Richard Harding Davis

With Hearst and Pulitzer throwing their money at the war, it was a perfect situation for correspondents. Two hundred correspondents covered the war, and expenses were no object. Some cable charges ran as high as $8,000, and the Associated Press chartered a flotilla of boats that by agreement could cruise at will through the battle lines before rushing back to the nearest cable station. But circulations soared, and as they did so did the headlines grow to almost 4-inches in some cases. Among the standout correspondents of the time was Richard Harding Davis, who worked for Hearst and became one of the most experienced and respected of American correspondents in a career that took him from the Grecko-Turkish War to the First World War.

Through the Second World War and up until the 1970s even, cable was the primary means of sending dispatches. However, the militaries had learned their lessons with correspondents by the First World War and began what was then the largest and most deliberate campaign of censorship and propaganda.

Before the U.S. entered the war, American correspondents made the best effort to tell both sides of the story as truthfully as possible. Often this meant cryptic finagling with words to get a message by the censors.

Wythe Williams of The New York Times was one of the very best at this and got. In one cable to the paper's managing editor Carr Van Anda Williams suggested that he read a recent article in Collier's Weekly by Alden Brooks. Van Anda read the article, which featured the career of French General Henri Petain. Van Anda then cabled Williams: DOES BROOKS MAN WANT JOB WITH US? Williams then answered: YES WE DICKERING WITH HIM NOW.

A telegraph, circa 1920

By this, Van Anda figured out Williams' intimation that Petain was involved in a change of command. He sent another cable back to Williams: IS BROOKS MAN TO HAVE ONLY FRENCH BRANCH HOUSE OR ENTIRE FIRM? IN ANY CASE WILL PRESENT LOCAL MANAGER BE PROVIDED WITH ANOTHER PLACE, POSSIBLY ADMINISTRATIVE? Williams replied: HE WANTS BOTH OFFICES. But once the prospects began to change for Petain, Williams cabled: BROOKS MAN WANTS TOO MUCH THINK IT BEST CONSIDER ASSISTANT. Just a few hours later, Williams provided the final clue: ASSISTANT ACCEPTS.

Van Anda added this all up. The assistant was General Robert Nivele, so he wrote a story datelined Washington to protect Williams saying that the General Joffre's retirement was being planned and General Nivele would replace him. The story noted that General Petain had originally be considered for the position, but he had demanded more control than France could give him. At first the story was vigorously denied, but five days after it first appeared Joffre's retirement was announced and Nivele was tapped to take over.

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Last Updated: December 7, 1999